Watson Island seaplane base in holding pattern
Written by John Charles Robbins on January 19, 2016
The plan to revive a seaplane base on Watson Island remains grounded as city officials review a lease of the city-owned property to a private company.
And one commissioner, newcomer Ken Russell, wants to see more details for revamping the seaplane base and heliport that include expanded development with commercial space including restaurants, a media center and a lighthouse.
It was Mr. Russell who made the motion Jan. 14 to again postpone voting on a package of ordinances that would change the zoning and land use designation of the site. The matter was deferred twice before, in November and December.
“I’m not trying to stall the project,” Mr. Russell said Jan. 14, but he said he wants “more time.”
Mr. Russell has characterized the land on Watson Island as a great piece of property.
Leasing the land for a seaplane base for many years denied the public’s right to determine the best use of the choice site, he said.
“What do the people want it to be?” asked Mr. Russell.
Attorney Ben Fernandez, representing Nautilus Enterprises LLC and seaplane company Chalk’s, told commissioners one of the first uses on the island shortly after its creation was a seaplane base.
Chalk’s began seaplane service to and from the island in the 1920s.
The seaplane base was allowed under the city’s old zoning code, but the adoption of Miami 21 in 2010 made it a non-conforming use, explained Mr. Fernandez.
The proposed ordinances would correct that error, he said, as he lobbied for an affirmative vote.
At the Dec. 10 meeting – Mr. Russell’s first – commissioners and administrators said that previous commissioners had approved a long-term use of the site for Chalk’s Miami Seaplane Base years ago. The seaplane base has fallen into disrepair over the years.
Contracts govern the property’s use, Commissioner Francis Suarez said then.
Commissioners told Mr. Russell the proposed land use and zoning changes are part of a settlement of decades-old litigation involving the site.
Also, the use predates a city charter requirement that voters approve waterfront leases, a deputy city attorney said.
The lead ordinance would change the use designation of the site from Public Parks and Recreation to Major Institutional, Public Facilities, Transportation and Utilities. The city itself seeks the changes.
It would impact about 9 acres of the 110-acre man-man island in Biscayne Bay, connected to Miami Beach and the mainland via the MacArthur Causeway.
Francisco Garcia, the city’s planning director, said some people perceive that the proposed zoning change is up-zoning.
“It is most definitely not,” Mr. Garcia told commissioners Jan. 14.
The city has partnered with the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority (MSEA) to develop an aviation center that would house both a heliport and seaplane base. The authority has leased the Watson Island site to Nautilus Enterprises LLC to operate the seaplane base.
A planning department memo says, “The evolution of Watson Island has been consistent with the current plan in place. At this time it is necessary to rebuild the heliport and seaplane facilities deemed as pre-existing services on the island, with vested rights…”
On Jan. 14, Mr. Russell reiterated that he doesn’t oppose a seaplane operation on the island.
Mr. Russell also shared with fellow commissioners a letter he received from Ignacio J. Vega-Penichet Lopez, president of Chalks Airline Inc.
The letter refers to Chalk’s having construction rights in the new lease for “additional” new construction referred to as the “Commercial Facility” of 100,000 interior square feet.
Mr. Lopez says in the letter that Chalk’s is “willing to reduce and waive, at your request and subject to MSEA’s approval,” 50,000 interior square feet, under several conditions including an adjustment of rental payments.
The examination of the history of the uses on Watson Island, and a renewed long-term lease of the city-owned land, has led to discussions of abolishing the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority.
Critics of the body say it has too much power and influence.
Commissioner Frank Carollo asked that a discussion “regarding the possible elimination of the MSEA board” be placed on the Jan. 14 agenda.
“Once again, do we want to abolish MSEA?” Mr. Carollo asked, after prolonged debate about the appointed body’s role.
In the end, it appeared there wasn’t a consensus on doing away with the authority entirely. The city attorney’s office is to prepare proposed legislation to realign the membership on the authority and put tighter controls on what it can and cannot do. One change is to ensure that all leases of city-owned waterfront property go to a public vote.
The Watson Island matter is to be heard at the Jan. 28 commission meeting.